There's never been another place more foreign feeling than Shanghai. Of course, for a first-time visitor to China, and also Asia as a whole, I predicted that this might be the case. The world's most populated city caught me by surprise though, and I don’t just mean being swindled at the airport into a more expensive taxi kind of surprise.
At first, sitting in the backseat of my taxi, a clean and newish black sedan, headed toward the hotel, the city felt a bit like Las Vegas with its empty surroundings and looming towers as I rested my head on the window peering out at the outside world whooshing by with a subtle blur. If it weren't for the Chinese characters painted across road signs and store-fronts, it would have been challenging to convince myself that I was in an unfamiliar place. After nearly an hour pondering about the new world I found myself in we arrived at the hotel. As I half-expected and half-hoped, the staff was beyond kind and overly courteous as they almost forcibly took my luggage from me to take up to my soon-to-be room whilst I awkwardly attempted to skooch out of the back-seat of the taxi. Smiles and low bows abounded as I made my way to the reception desk after beaming up 52 floors in the building’s high-speed elevator.
After I was kindly shown to my room, I sluggishly dropped my belongings on the ground and made my way outside to explore the city during the only free time I had for the week. I knew that if I didn't get out of my room quickly and continue moving around that I would quietly pass out from the jet-lag and waste an entire afternoon of city immersion. At first, I just walked around the area near my hotel in Pudong, gawking at the rocket ship looking television tower and table-service Taco Bell, but pretty quickly I began itching for a more residential perspective of the city. So, I found my way to the nearest tube station, took it to a random stop, alighted, and wandered up and down crowded streets full of life, chaos, and n-95 face masks. The weather was warm. Only after walking around for about 30 minutes or so, I noticed the small beads of sweat beginning to roll down my spine as I trekked through the urban jungle, curiously attempting to make out whether or not I should enter microscopic shops filled with steamy bowls of dumpling soups or keep wandering until I found cheap clothing to buy for my wife. I did both. Back alleys were filled with jungle-esq branches of drying clothes hanging strewn between buildings. Each storefront had its own unique flavor and defining characteristics but was still connected through common elements of old, dirty red & gray mops lying around and obscure lettering above the doorways. It was easy to wonder what anyone did for a living as people were thrown about here and there, seemingly doing nothing. They must have been doing something though. I moved about quietly, as to not draw too much attention to myself, in and out of little clothiers and hidden markets, visually inquiring of the city’s soul and character.
What caught my attention and delighted me more than anything else, more than the hefty dragon fruits, beckoning soup dumplings, and even more than the glimmering tags of top-tier brands sold for pennies on the dollar, was how kind the people were. From the hotel to the streets and the office to the restaurants, I don't remember having any encounters with the Shanghai’s residents that weren't pleasant. Perhaps my height and skin color automatically helped them know I didn't speak any bit of Chinese so they exchanged compassionate smiles instead of words, or maybe by being nice they could convince a dumb tourist to pay more for something. I'm not sure, but what I am confident of is that my experience was decidedly enjoyable. Shanghai was different in that way than I thought it would be. I assumed that I would be pushed around and trampled over by selfie-sticks and grumpy grandmas, similar to when I was in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre; however, my experience was quite the opposite. Trains never felt as crowded as London’s tube (although, perhaps I just had impeccable timing), sidewalks never felt too small, rarely did I need to side-step to get around a gaggle of teens, and when I did encounter spaces that were too populated or stressful, nobody complained or threw a tantrum, they were just content and kind. The population moved about effortlessly, acknowledging one another politely during potentially anxious situations. Calm rested in the creases of air between people passing one another on the sidewalks and in the stillness of steam floating above ginormous bowls of soup.
The rest of the week was busy with work things, and I didn’t have the chance to intentionally reflect on any of the experiences outside the walls of the office until I was situated on the cramped, 13-hour flight back to London. I felt coming away from it all that I probably don’t smile as much as I could. I probably don’t consciously think of other people as well I want to. In all reality, there probably wasn’t too much that was different from my everyday life here. Sometimes though, it takes being in a new place outside of the reaches of familiarity to cause an internalization of life and the things we do or don’t do. For me I know that’s the case. Whenever I’m outside of my element, I’m confronted with who I really am and what I believe. Travel has always done this for and is one of the reasons it’s something I recommend to anyone. Deciding to live abroad has ultimately challenged me to consider that perhaps the world is actually quite bigger and more interesting than my ideas of it from where I stand with my gigantic American values and opinions. I’m continuing to realize that every opportunity we get to interact with new people or new places affords us the chance to be refined, or at a bare minimum more educated and understanding of others.